Shared grief

I cried when I heard the news.

It arrived, like most of what I consume in the moment: via Twitter. After I finished saying aloud "No!" I turned to Google. There were no new results in the News tab and I hoped against hope that someone had jumped the gun and gotten things mixed up.

But then I saw the Turner statement spreading. Craig Sager had, in fact, died.

 

Tears sprang to my eyes for although I had only officially met Mr. Sager once, I have some sense of the pain his family feels now.

The grief.

The loneliness.

The need to reshape how you view yourself and your family around the hole where your father used to be.

The guilt-inducing relief that sometimes comes upon realizing that the most awful roller coaster ride of your life is over.

The loss of a parent changes you. One day, I had a dad, the next he only lived on in my memories. Suddenly, I became attuned to loss all around me in a way I simply wasn't equipped to before.

I know now that my life tomorrow may not be as simple as it is today, and as a result, I strive to remain grateful on a daily basis, and to share what I have learned through these hard times in hopes of helping others. 

#SagerStrong

All these terrible anniversaries

I knew to dread Christmas. Because obviously, Mom and my first Christmas without Dad would be hard. My body created a buffer of sorts: I was sick in bed with bronchitis for three days beginning Christmas Eve, leaving Mom to fend for herself. I was so ill I couldn't even feel guilty until later.

I anticipated that the month of February would be painful between Valentine's Day and Mom's birthday. Dad was a romantic who enjoyed planning surprises for his wife and took pride in his gift giving.

I had no idea how painful my birthday would be. The first October 16 without Dad in this world, how it hurt. I was heartbroken all over again.

And now Father's Day and the rapidly approaching saddest anniversary of all, July 17. How have we lived for almost a year without this man?

 

Last year at this time, life, frankly, was terrible. Mom and I were making circuits between Scranton and NYC and Dad's Philadelphia hospital. We were stressed about treatments that didn't go as planned, Philly hotel prices, our jobs and Dad's mounting unhappiness. The three of us had lived with joy for the most part for a long time and suddenly there was none.

The pain doesn't end when a loved one's suffering does. My mother is reminded of her loss daily, weekly, monthly, always. Daily when someone says a kind word about Dad--and it happens every single day. Weekly when she arrives home from golf league and Dad isn't there to ask how she played. Monthly on the 17th.

My pain comes in waves, some predictable, others not. I am still waiting for the memories of ICU and hospice to be replaced with thoughts of our many, happier times together. Someday I hope this peace will come. I'm not there yet.

The monster in me

My mother is crying.

I am sitting with my arms around her in a gesture meant to comfort, but it's a perfunctory effort. My arms may as well be made of wood, and my heart, of stone.

It's February and we are in Florida, attempting to celebrate my mother's first birthday without Dad. Mom is raw and unsteady. As brittle and delicate as a fallen leaf. When I arrive at the airport, I hug her and try to find the right thing to say. Saying the wrong thing, even a sincere "how are you?" brings her to tears some days. But my own eyes stay dry.

I am a terrible daughter.

 

It is the night of my mother's birthday and we are with friends at a restaurant with a piano bar.

Mom requests a song, and then another. She asks the piano player if he knows "What I Did For Love" from the Broadway musical A Chorus Line. It has long been Mom's first request--that is, unless my father beat her to it. Dad often requested Mom's favorite song for her before she could do it herself. He was forever striving to unlock the mysteries of the complex woman he loved. Thoughtful, loving gestures showed his eager to please nature.

 

The restaurant is loud so I can't hear the pianist's response to Mom's request, but I read the look on his face as annoyance.

Mom requests more songs she and Dad had loved: "Angel of Music" from Phantom of the Opera, the theme from The Godfather and so on. The pianist plays some of them, but denies others, while we wait for our table. I wish Mom would stop asking, stop crying, stop hurting...just stop.

I'm a monster for feeling these things, I know.

Between the piano and the crowd, the restaurant is noisy. I retreat as deep into my own head as is socially acceptable until our table is ready. We get through dinner and Mom's first birthday without Dad.

There's a bubble forming around me--invisible to others, but impenetrable too. A numbness has found its way inside me, creeping inside my chest and curling around my heart. I seem to have stopped crying for my father and the relief I feel at that sickens and frightens me.

But here's the thing: right now, I'm not crying for Dad because I'm running from my memories of him. And Mom, to her credit, is facing her heartache head on.

It's Mother's Day and I worry that Mom will be missing Dad even more than usual. I buy her flowers. I make a reservation at a New Jersey restaurant housed in a former train station, like we have back home in Scranton. At the table, I give her a pretty card.

And then it's my turn to cry. I tell her how much I miss my father and how hard it is to watch her mourn the same man simultaneously, but differently. I apologize through tears for my arms of wood and my heart of stone.

She takes my hand and tells me my heart could never be cold. My mother, she understands.

Grief in all its miserable forms

When I make the trip home to Pennsylvania, I am inevitably drawn to my late father's closet. I stick my entire face into his clothes hanging there and breathe, hoping to catch a trace of him and to feel close. I run my fingers over his button down shirts - one crisp white with a pink check, a Hawaiian print that must have been purchased for a theme party - picturing him wearing each. I remember the many times he called me over to show two possible ensembles for the day's events so I could pick which I liked better.

Dad always let me know my opinion mattered to him--unless it was about what was on TV. If I didn't like what Dad was watching, I was welcome to go elsewhere, he said (and often).


As a long time reader of Joanna Goddard's blog, A Cup of Jo, I had heard the tragic story of her brother-in-law's diagnosis of lung cancer and subsequent death at just 37 years old. I had already planned to read Kalanithi's book before I read Lucy's essay in the New York Times.

But the essay, entitled My Marriage Didn’t End When I Became a Widow, was so moving and familiar that I had to share so that you might read When Breath Becomes Air too.

This excerpt in particular has stuck with me.

The transition from married to bereaved was disorienting. At first I could scarcely grasp what widowhood meant; I was too busy looking for ways to comfort Paul even after he died. When the funeral home asked me to bring a set of clothes for Paul to be buried in, I wore them first, thinking I will make these clothes warm and redolent of us. I put a pair of our daughter’s socks in his pants pocket. On the day of the burial, I stepped out from the procession and moved ahead of the pallbearers, compelled to lead his coffin down the hill. I can’t take your hand, but I will guide you; you will not go alone. For several months, I slept with my head on the pillow he had died on, left his medications in their drawer, wore his clothes to bed. Still today, months after his death, I go and sit at his grave, absent-mindedly stroking the grass as if it were his hair, talking to him using nicknames only he would understand.
— Lucy Kalanithi in the NY Times

 

I have talked about various elements of grieving in the six months since my Mom and I lost wonderful sweet Dad. For me, the days have become a little easier. I no longer cry daily, for example. But acknowledging that brings on a wave of a different, even deeper pain plus some guilt.

My life has irrevocably changed and even with all I have learned from this process, I have no idea what's next.

I also have no idea how to end this post.

 

When Breath Becomes Air
By Paul Kalanithi